Alexandra Byrne interview: ‘Emma’ costume designer
“I think color is one of the best storytelling devices that we have,” explains costume designer Alexandra Byrne. “It is a kind of subliminal signpost. You’re guiding the audience’s instinctive response to something.” The Oscar winner used color to great effect while bringing Regency-era clothing to life in “Emma.” Watch the exclusive video interview above.
“Emma” isn’t the first time Byrne has tackled a Jane Austen adaptation. She previously designed the outfits for “Persuasion” (winning a BAFTA TV Award in the process). It was her first ever film, with the designer admitting she “had not a clue what I was doing.” That allowed her to work off of her intuition, after amassing mountains of research of course (which she notes was more difficult back in 1995 before the internet inundated us with information and images). “There is a great joy in trusting your instinct,” says Byrne. Her work on “Persuasion” and many subsequent historical films, allowed her to arrive at “Emma” feeling “stronger in my choices and my beliefs.”
She immediately gelled with Autumn de Wilde after the director showed her the deck used to pitch the film, complete with a bevy of fashion engravings. “It’s a joy to work with a director who is clearly visually so precise,” claims Byrne.
Byrne noticed that the story took place over the course of an entire year. As such, the designer created “a seasonal palette” with a color book for each of the four seasons. “Colors were really strong” during the regency period, she notes, “and there were fabulous combinations.” That seemed to fit well with de Wilde’s desire for the film to look like “sugared macaroons.” The result is a dazzling display of clothing cast in vibrant pastels. Anya Taylor-Joy’s titular protagonist sports iconic looks such as a full length jacket in bold yellow. A different shade of yellow is combined with a girlish pink for a surprisingly successful wedding look. “Pastels are not my comfort zone,” Byrne admits. But the striking combinations worked after “finding the right shades of those colors.”
This colorful approach helped Byrne defy misconceptions about the wardrobe of the time period. “People think regency for women is a muslin dress and that’s all there is,” she notes. In reality, the dress is accented by corsets, petticoats, bonnets, and jewelry that can totally modify a look. “You can change the balance or feel of a costume just by putting different accessories together,” she explains. This made for an exciting atmosphere on set. On the day of shooting, she would work with Taylor-Joy to add various pieces based on how the actress felt during her scene. “It was very collaborative,” remembers Byrne, “very spontaneous.”
Byrne won the Best Costume Design Oscar for “Elizabeth: The Golden Age.” She earned additional nominations for “Hamlet” (1996), “Elizabeth,” “Finding Neverland,” and “Mary, Queen of Scots.”